The Battle for the Holy Land
The origins of the Jewish state's bid to settle the West Bank, and the allure of a sacred capital.

Reviewed by Shlomo Avineri
Sunday, March 26, 2006


Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-77

By Gershom Gorenberg

Times. 454 pp. $30


The Past, Present and Future of the Holiest City

By Walter Laqueur

Sourcebooks. 345 pp. $26.95

Shortly after the Six-Day War of 1967, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was taken on a helicopter ride over the newly captured West Bank. Flying over the semi-lush, semi-arid terrain, Eshkol's escorts noticed his pensive mood. " Nu ?" one of them asked. After a moment of silence, Eshkol is said to have muttered: "The dowry is beautiful, but what are we going to do with the bride?"

The dowry, obviously, was the land, rich with historical and biblical memories; the bride was its Palestinian inhabitants, then numbering slightly more than a million. Eshkol's ambivalence has haunted Israel ever since. This tension between geography and demography has been the mainstay of the country's political discourse for the last four decades, and it is brought out in great detail and with much critical empathy by Gershom Gorenberg, an American-born Israeli journalist, in his richly documented The Accidental Empire .

Gorenberg's thesis is simple: Contrary to conventional wisdom, Israel's post-1967 settlement policy was not the result of a planned, well thought out strategy. In fact, Israel was utterly unprepared to deal with the newly acquired territories. Like other governments in crisis situations, those led by Eshkol and his Labor Party successor, Golda Meir, were improvising, playing for time, eschewing tough decisions. With the country's leadership winging it, a small but determined group of religious nationalist activists known as Gush Emunim ("Bloc of the Faithful") -- with some support from Israel's traditionally secular, socialist elites -- pushed various Israeli governments to start settling some of the occupied areas, thus creating what the settlers famously referred to as "facts on the ground." These slice-by-slice tactics ("one acre, one goat at a time," as they were known in pre-1948 days) eventually created the complex, snarled situation on the West Bank that will be inherited by the Israeli government that will be elected on Tuesday.

Much of Gorenberg's book follows this process, offering an almost blow-by-blow account of the lobbying, propaganda campaigns, protests and political blackmail by the settler activists who managed, despite their small number, to wag the dog. His heroes -- one could equally say villains -- are two people from very different backgrounds: Hanan Porat, a student in the ultranationalist yeshiva of the messianic Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, and the poet Haim Gouri, an icon of the left-wing, socialist generation that won Israel's War of Independence in 1948-49. While Porat was the architect of Gush Emunim's strategy, Gouri, though torn between his humanist socialism and his maximalist brand of Zionism, supplied much of the intellectual legitimacy for the settlers within the secular Labor movement.

Gorenberg arguably puts too much emphasis on these two men's roles. Nevertheless, his account is a welcome corrective to standard accounts of Israel's policies, which focus on leaders' statements and diplomatic cables. Gorenberg looks at politics from the bottom up and shows how even small pressure groups can influence policymakers.

Gorenberg's account shows the extent to which 1967 was a watershed in Israeli politics. Until then, most Israelis had resigned themselves to viewing the country's 1949 armistice lines (the so-called Green Line) as its ultimate border, hoping that one day the Arab countries would accept them. The Six-Day War changed all that. Within mere weeks, millions of Israelis were swept up by the euphoria of deliverance from what had seemed like impending doom, and biblically charged regions that had seemed as if they were on the dark side of the moon became immediate and proximate realities. While no Israeli leader -- not even the rightist Menachem Begin -- ever advocated a war to "liberate" the West Bank or the Old City of Jerusalem before 1967, attitudes changed once those areas came under Israeli rule. Begin's Herut Party was drawn from the margins to the mainstream, and the National Religious Party -- heretofore a cautious, moderate party and a pliant partner in Labor-led coalitions -- became the tribune of a new, messianic Zionism.

If something is missing in Gorenberg's otherwise comprehensive account, it is the role of Begin's Herut in the years immediately after 1967. Before 1967, Herut (the forerunner of today's Likud) was beyond the pale of Israeli politics: In his inimitable style, Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion, always insisted that he was ready for partnership with all parties, "except Herut and the Communists." But in the confusing days before war began in the spring of 1967, when Israel was caught unprepared by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's decision to oust U.N. peacekeeping forces from the Sinai buffer zone, Begin's party was brought into the government, and it stayed there until the summer of 1970: Its presence strengthened Labor's hawks (especially Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres), and the settlers viewed Begin as their best ally in the government.

Despite this omission, Gorenberg's book is a must: It shows how simplistic distinctions between "doves" and "hawks" do not explain much about Israeli politics or society -- something proved again recently by the fact that the erstwhile arch-hawk Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli leader to dismantle settlements and break the power of the settlers. Among the many illuminating vignettes in The Accidental Empire are some (justifiably) harsh words about Golda Meir; during her 1969-74 premiership, she came to symbolize a tough and self-righteous Israel, even though initially she had been seen by Labor's leadership as only a stop-gap leader after Eshkol's death. As with Meir, so with Sharon's disengagement from the Gaza Strip last summer: Israel is full of the unexpected.

Walter Laqueur's Dying for Jerusalem is a very different book from Gorenberg's. Its title is a misnomer: While trying to explain why Jerusalem remains such a contentious issue, Laqueur -- with his usual panache as a historian and political analyst -- paints on a much wider canvas. He tries to do for Jerusalem what Carl Schorske did for Vienna and John Lukacs did for Budapest, with whiffs of Lawrence Durrell's lush, evocative Alexandria Quartet in the background. Part historical account, part memoir, this is perhaps the most sophisticated, urbane, charming and at the same time learned portrait one may expect of the city whose presence at the center of three religions and two national movements is its blessing and its curse. Above all, Laqueur's detailed knowledge of Jerusalem's quarters -- Rechavia and Talbiya, Mea Shearim and Machane Yehuda -- evokes the very aroma of each disparate area.

Laqueur starts with his arrival in Jerusalem on Nov. 15, 1938, and the date says it all: His train left Germany just as Kristallnacht descended on German Jewry. Laqueur spent the war years in Palestine (he left in 1955 but has been continually coming back), and he is ever thankful to Zionism and Jerusalem for saving him from the Holocaust. Still, he is ambivalent about some basic tenets of the Zionist movement founded by Theodor Herzl. " 'We are a people, one people,' Herzl had exclaimed in a famous speech in an early Zionist Congress to stormy acclaim, but was it still true?" Laqueur asks, with a bluntness that would make every Zionist uncomfortable. The strengthening of the right wing in post-1967 Israeli politics has made him even more ambivalent, and he obviously has a visceral dislike of the ultra-Orthodox.

But for all this, Dying for Jerusalem is a plea for a liberal, open vision of a Jewish state: Its compassion applies equally to Jews and Arabs, and Laqueur's humanism gives the book a bit of an elegiac quality. Hence some of his nostalgia for pre-1948 Jerusalem, when, under the British Mandate, Jews and Arabs did not live exactly peacefully but still lived together, albeit uneasily, under imperial custody.

The anguish that followed may explain why, at the end of the day, Laqueur preferred living in London and Washington to living in Jerusalem: too much history, too much contentiousness. Yet even he is ultimately at a loss to suggest a solution for the holy city that would be acceptable to all sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Laqueur briefly mentions the idea of making Jerusalem a joint capital for Israel and Palestine and is quick to add that the only analogy would be Chandigarh, the Indian city that serves jointly as capital to the states of Punjab and Haryana. But Chandigarh is a "Union Territory," an Indian term for (as the city's government puts it) "something like the District of Columbia in the USA," and Laqueur recognizes that the analogy doesn't fit. He also views the idea of making Jerusalem into an international city, as suggested by the United Nations in 1947, as highly unlikely.

We are thus left with an unsolved problem, but with a book that is fascinating in its erudition and appealing in its humanism. Yet ultimately, like everyone else, Laqueur is flummoxed by the inscrutability of history. ยท

Shlomo Avineri is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he is the author of numerous books, including "The Making of Modern Zionism."

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